During the summer of 1999, Carole lost her husband and two close friends within three weeks of each other. First, her beloved friends, John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, died in a tragic plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean. Weeks later, her husband and John's cousin, Anthony Radziwill, lost his battle with cancer.
After years of struggling with the loss, she wrote her memoir, What Remains.
"It was a short conversation because I was going to see her the next day," Carole says. "I hung up the phone and opened the book I was reading, and an hour later she was dead."
The plane that was carrying John, Carolyn and Carolyn's sister Lauren went down at approximately 9:38 p.m. that night.
"I became almost obsessed in the year following that night about what I was doing at the exact moment when Carolyn was in that plane," Carole says. "That first chapter that I wrote was sort of a nightmare that went over and over and over again in my head every day.
"Afterward I tried to find something to explain what had happened—was it cloudy, were the stars out?" Carole writes in her memoir. "But the night was ordinary. It usually is, I think, when your life changes. Most people aren't doing anything special when the carefully placed pieces of their life break apart."
"[Pinky] was at Hyannis Airport, and he was waiting for John's plane, and he said, 'But they're not here. Are they there with you?'" Carole says. "And the moment he said that…I don't know how much time passed. It could have been seconds. It could have been minutes…[but] I knew immediately that the plane had probably crashed. I just knew."
Carole's journalism instincts, from the years she spent at ABC News, kicked in. She made phone calls to airports, the Coast Guard, the Air Force and Carolyn's cell phone for hours, late into the night. "I left messages hoping that she'd pick up," Carole says. "And then later on in the night, I just called just to hear her voice."
At 5 a.m., Carole made a heartbreaking phone call to Carolyn and Lauren's mother to tell her that her daughters were missing. Anthony called Caroline, John's sister. Then, they waited for more news.
"It was Saturday morning and I remember just sitting in front of the TV," Oprah says. "We were just sitting there waiting, waiting, waiting."
Carole held out hope that they might be found, but by Monday, the families began making funeral plans and on Tuesday, the plane wreckage was found. Carolyn, John and Lauren were buried at sea days later.
Photo Credit: Carole Radziwill
In her memoir, What Remains, Carole writes, "John is Oscar to Anthony's Felix. If Anthony is the angel, the well-mannered school boy, John is the scamp…Watching them, I can see they can't stand too close to each other and can't bear to be too far apart."
John was Anthony's best man at his wedding, and he also stood by Anthony's side throughout his long battle with cancer.
The first time doctors told Carole her husband was on the verge of death, John showed up at the hospital late that night wearing a tuxedo. He had just come from a black-tie affair, and he went straight to the bedside of his best friend and held his hand. "[John] was made for the big moments, and he always pulled it out," Carole says. "And this was a big moment."
"[John] started singing a song, humming at first and then started singing," Carole says. "Carolyn and I didn't know what the song was, but it was a children's nursery rhyme. And then Anthony recognized it. It was called "Teddy Bears Picnic"…It was a song that John's mom would sing to them when they were 11- or 12-year-old boys—when they thought they were big—and she would sing this song to remind them that they were still little boys."
Although Anthony was in and out of consciousness, he smiled and started humming along with John. "And in the book, I remember you saying," Oprah recalls, "That the doctors think that Anthony will die tonight, and John takes him, by singing that song, to the safest place he knew."
The two women came from similar, working-class backgrounds and grew up right across the Hudson River from one another. Carole was raised in Suffern, New York, Carolyn in Yonkers—far from the lavish estates of the Kennedy family. Carole barely recognizes the glamorized version of Carolyn seen in photos…the woman she remembers usually wore sweatpants and T-shirts, with her hair all a mess. Carole also remembers Carolyn sitting with her in the hospital room for 12 hours at a time, rubbing Anthony's feet. Carolyn would also make up excuses to get Carole out of the hospital—like a need to buy tulips or a quick trip to the mall.
"I never told her this, but she saved my life so many times," Carole says. "So many times. She was so much fun. She's just like the girlfriend every girl should have."
Carole calls the rumors "unfair," saying, "I think this is something that really has a way of distorting everything in life, and people don't understand the difference between fact and truth. And the fact is it was a very difficult summer. The fact is Anthony was dying. John's business was struggling. The fact is that they were in marriage counseling. The truth is that they loved each other and they were committed to their relationship, and you can't judge someone's marriage or life on a snapshot, you know, of one month or two months or one summer."
How does Carole want her lost friends to be remembered?
"I think nobody knows what happens in a marriage except for the two people in it. I honestly believe that," says Carole. "I know that they loved each other and they were committed to their relationship."
Carole: You got very serious and you were saying goodbye. … And you sort of held me by my shoulders and looked at me straight in the eyes and said, "You're going to be okay. You're going to be fine." And I [was thinking]…"I hope I don't wake up in the morning." … You just knew that there was something that you saw or something that you knew that I was going to be okay.
Oprah: I was trying to will that to you.
Carole: You did.
Photo Credit: Carole Radziwill
Carole says that toward the end of her husband's fight with cancer, John Kennedy Jr. insisted they try to help Anthony get through the five stages of grief. Despite John's concern, Carole says she felt Anthony's denial would outlast the disease. "With Anthony I think it did. And that's the way he wanted it. And I had to respect that. And it was very difficult, you know, it was very difficult not to talk about it, but I knew that he didn't want to talk about it."
Carole also says she had started to move on with her life, but was beginning to forget details of the past: "I was forgetting things and it was making me anxious, and I thought, I can't lose them a second time."
For Carole, it was "an unbelievable relief" to begin to tell her story. "I felt that it really allowed me to move on in my life in a way that I couldn't possibly have done without getting all of that stuff out of my head."